Sulpicius Severus first met Martin of Tours he was stunned. Not only did the bishop offer him
hospitality at his residence -- a monk's cell in the wilderness instead of a palace -- but Martin
washed Sulpicius' hands before dinner and his feet in the evening. But Sulpicius was just the kind
of person Martin showed the greatest honor to -- a humble man without any rank or privilege. People
of nobility and position were turned away from his abbey by chalk cliffs, out of fear of the
temptation to pride. From that visit, Sulpicius became Martin's disciple, friend, and biographer.
Little is known of many of the saints who died in the early years of Christianity but thanks to
Sulpicius, who wrote his first biography of Martin before the saint died and who talked to most of
the people involved in his life, we have a priceless record of Martin's life.
Born in 315 or 316 in
Pannonia, a Roman province that includes modern Hungary, Martin came into a world in transition.
Christians were no longer persecuted by the Roman empire but Christianity was still not accepted by
all. Martin's father, an Roman army officer who had risen through the ranks, remained faithful to
the old religion and suspicious of this new sect, as did Martin's mother. Therefore it was Martin's
own spiritual yearning and hunger that led him to secretly knock on the door of the local Christian
church and beg to be made a catechumen -- when he was ten years old. In contemplative prayer, he
found the time to be alone with God that he ached for. In the discussion of the mysteries, he found
the truth he hoped for.
He was still an unbaptized catechumen when he was forced to join the army at 15. The Roman
army apparently had a law that required sons of veterans to serve in the military. Still, Martin
found this so far removed from his desire to be a Christian monk that he had to be held in chains
before taking the military oath. Once the oath was administered he felt bound to obey. He was
assigned to a ceremonial cavalry unit that protected the emperor and rarely saw combat. Like his
father, he became an officer and eventually was assigned to garrison duty in Gaul (present-day
the military Martin attempted to live the life of a monk. Though he was entitled to a servant
because he was an officer, he insisted on switching roles with his servant, cleaning the servant's
boots instead of the other way around!
It was on this garrison duty at Amiens that the event took place that
has been portrayed in art throughout the ages. On a bitterly cold winter day, the young tribune
Martin rode through the gates, probably dressed in the regalia of his unit -- gleaming, flexible
armor, ridged helmet, and a beautiful white cloak whose upper section was lined with lambswool. As
he approached the gates he saw a beggar, with clothes so ragged that he was practically naked. The
beggar must have been shaking and blue from the cold but no one reached out to help him. Martin,
overcome with compassion, took off his mantle. In one quick stroke he slashed the lovely mantle in
two with his sword, handed half to the freezing man and wrapped the remainder on his own shoulders.
Many in the crowd thought this was so ridiculous a sight that they laughed and jeered but some
realized that they were seeing Christian goodness. That night Martin dreamed that he saw Jesus
wearing the half mantle he had given the beggar. Jesus said to the angels and saints that surrounded
him, "See! this is the mantle that Martin, yet a catechumen, gave me." When he woke, it was the "yet
a catechumen" that spurred Martin on and he went immediately to be baptized. He was eighteen years
know much about the two years that followed but his baptism must have fed his growing desire to make
a total commitment to Christ, a commitment that was in conflict with his military role. This
conflict came to a crisis when the nomad Franks and Allemanni invaded the empire.
It was the practice at the
time to give money to soldiers before battle, in order to infuse the soldiers with a greater love of
their country and desire to fight. When Julian lined up the soldiers in Gaul to give them their
bounty, Martin refused to accept the money -- and to fight -- saying, "Put me in the front of the
army, without weapons or armor; but I will not draw sword again. I am become the soldier of Christ."
There seems to be no evidence that Martin had been in combat before so perhaps he never had to
reconcile his Christian beliefs with war. In any case, it does seem an unfortunate time to make such
a decision. Julian, furious at what he saw as cowardice, told Martin he would grant him his wish and
put him right in the middle of battle the next day. Until that happened, he had Martin imprisoned.
However, against all predictions and all explanation, the nomads sent word that they wanted to
negotiate for peace and the battle was postponed. Martin was released from his prison and from the
for direction in his new life, Martin wound up in Poitiers, seeking the guidance and example of
Saint Hilary. Hilary wished to make this promising young man a priest but Martin, out of humility,
refused even to be ordained a deacon. He finally agreed to be ordained an exorcist (someone who
performed rituals for those who were sick or possessed) when Hilary told him his refusal meant that
he thought he was too good for such a lowly job.
On a trip over the Alps to visit his parents,
he was attacked by robbers who not only wanted to steal what he owned but threatened to take his
life. Calm and unperturbed, Martin spoke to the robbers about God. One was so impressed he converted
and became a law-abiding citizen who told his own story to Sulpicius years later.
But Martin was to find even
more trouble in his own home town. Though his mother converted, his father stubbornly refused. When
Martin began to denounce publicly the Arian heretics that were then in power throughout the empire
-- even within the Church -- Martin was whipped and driven out of his own hometown!
He could not escape trouble
by leaving. When he discovered that Hilary had been exiled from Poitiers as well for the same
reason, Martin went to an island near Milan to live as a hermit. The Arians soon discovered that
Hilary was even more trouble in exile, because of the writing he did, and let him come back. When
Hilary returned to Poitiers, Martin was there to meet him and renew their old friendship. In order
to fulfill Martin's call to solitude, Hilary gave Martin a wilderness retreat. As disciples came to
Martin for direction, he founded a monastery for them called Ligug‚. It was there he performed the
first of many miracles. When a catechumen died before baptism, Martin laid himself over the body and
after several hours the man came back to life. Sulpicius also had talked to this man who was
baptized immediately but lived many years after that. Martin remained in this monastery near his
teacher and friend until after Hilary died.
This was still the era when bishops were chosen by the people and when
the bishop of Tours died, the people decided they wanted an example of holiness as their new bishop.
After that their choice was simple -- Martin. But as well as they knew his holiness, they also knew
he would never agree to be a bishop so they conceived a trick. A citizen of Tours came to Martin and
begged him to come visit his sick wife. When the kindhearted Martin got to Tours crowds of people
came out of hiding and surrounded him. Unable to escape, he was swept into the city. The people may
have been enthusiastic about their choice but the bishops there to consecrate the new bishop
declared they were repelled by this dirty, ragged, disheveled choice. The people's reply was that
they didn't choose Martin for his haircut, which could be fixed by any barber, but for his holiness
and poverty, that only charity and grace could bring. Overwhelmed by the will of the crowds the
bishops had no choice but to consecrate Martin.
Instead of living in a palace, Martin made his
first home as bishop in a cell attached to a church in hopes of being able to maintain his lifestyle
as a monk. But at that time bishops were more than spiritual pastors. With the Empire's
administration disintegrating under outside invasion and internal conflict, often the only authority
in a town like Tours was the bishop. People came to Martin constantly with questions and concerns
that involved all the affairs of the area.
To regain some of his solitude Martin fled outside the city to live in
a cabin made of branches. There he attracted as many as eighty disciples who wanted to follow him
and founded the monastery of Marmoutiers. He kept in touch with Tours through priest representatives
who reported to him and carried out his instructions and duties with the people.
It may seem from this that
Martin did not get involved with what was going on but Martin was deeply committed to his
One of those responsibilities was, he felt, the missionary conversion of those who still
held to various non-Christian beliefs. In those early days of Christianity such old beliefs survived
in abundance. He did not attempt to convert these people from a high pulpit or from far away. His
method was to travel from house to house and speak to people about God. Then he would organize the
converts into a community under the direction of a priest of monk. In order to let them know of his
continued love and to keep them following the faith, he would then visit these new communities
course he ran into resistance. In one rather ridiculous scene, locals decided to get back at him by
dressing up as the gods. So in the middle of the night, he was visited by a waggish talkative
Mercury, a doltish Jupiter, and an enthusiastically naked Venus, as well as various "wood spirits."
Needless to say, he was unconvinced by this show.
In one town, when he tried to convince the
locals to cut down a pine tree they venerated, they agreed -- but only if Martin would sit where the
tree was going to fall! Martin seated himself directly under the path of the leaning tree and the
townspeople began to cut from the other side. However, just as the tree began to topple, Martin made
the sign of the cross and the tree fell in the opposite direction -- slowly enough to miss the
fleeing townspeople. Martin won many converts that day.
Martin tore down many non-Christian temples
and always built a Christian church in their place to make a point about true worship and give
people a genuine replacement for their false idols. In once case when a huge tower was not torn down
under his orders, a bolt of lightning came to destroy it after his prayers.
Martin was also dedicated
to freeing of prisoners, so much so that when authorities, even the emperors, heard he was coming,
they refused to see him because they knew he would request mercy for someone and they would be
unable to refuse. Martin was so dedicated that few escaped his entreaties. One who didn't was a
general named Avitianus who arrived at Tours with ranks of prisoners he intended to torture and
execute the next day. As soon as Martin heard of this cruel plan, he left his monastery for the
city. Although he arrived there after midnight, he went straight to the house where Avitianus was
staying and threw himself on the threshold crying out in a loud voice. Sulpicius tells us that it
was an angel who awakened Avitianus to tell him Martin was outside. The servants, certain Avitianus
was dreaming, reassured him there was no one out there (without looking themselves). But after the
angel woke him up the second time, Avitianus went outside himself and told Martin, "Don't even say a
word. I know what your request it. Every prisoner shall be spared." Remarkably enough Sulpicius had
this story from Avitianus himself, who loved to tell it.
Martin was human and made mistakes. In spite
of what we may think of people in earlier times, many were skeptical of his visions of demons,
believing them to come from too much fasting. He also announced eight years before he died that the
Antichrist had been born. But his visions, whatever the source, are still instructive.
At one point the devil
appeared to him dressed in magnificent robes, encrusted with gold and gems, and announced he was
Jesus and that Martin was to adore him. Martin immediately saw the mistake the devil had made (and
had to make) and asked, "Where are the marks of the nails? Where the piercing of the spear? Where
the crown of thorns? When I see the marks of the Passion I shall adore my Lord." Jesus would not
come in riches but with the signs of his suffering and poverty.
Martin's compassion was as well-known as his
miracles. In just one case out of many a father came to him griefstricken that his daughter had
never spoken. Martin healed her by asking her to say her father's name -- which she did.
However it was this
compassion and mercy that led to what he considered his greatest mistake. Bishops from Spain
including a bishop named Ithacius had gone to the emperor soliciting his help in destroying a new
heresy taught by a man named Priscillian. Martin agreed completely that Priscillian was teaching
heresy (among other things, he rejected marriage, and said that the world was created by the devil)
and that he should be excommunicated. But he was horrified that Ithacius had appealed to a secular
authority for help and even more upset that Ithacius was demanding the execution of Priscillian and
his followers. Martin hurried to intervene with emperor Maximus, as did Ambrose of Milan. Martin
stated his case that this was a church matter and that secular authority had no power to intervene
and that excommunication of the heretics was punishment enough. He left believing he had won the
argument and saved the heretics but after he left Ithacius began his manipulation again and
Priscillian and the other prisoners were tortured and executed. This was the first time a death
sentence had been given for heresy -- a horrible precedent.
Martin's mistake was yet to come. He hurried
back in order to forestall a massacre of the Priscillianists. Once there he absolutely refused
communion with the bishops who had murdered the people. This was a strong statement that rejected
the persecuting bishops as part of the communion of the Church.
Unfortunately, the emperor Maximus knew the
key to Martin's heart. He had prisoners that supported the former emperor Gratian in captivity and
knew Martin wanted mercy for them. Maximus said that he would free these prisoners if Martin would
share communion with Ithacius. Martin agreed to do so, but afterwards was so overcome with shame and
guilt for giving in to such evil that he never went to any more assemblies of bishops.
On his way home, still
weighed down with a feeling that he had sinned by communicating with Ithacius, he had a vision of
angel who told him that although he was right to regret what he did, he was wrong to brood over his
faults. "You saw no other way out," the angel said. "Take courage again: recover your ordinary
firmness; otherwise you will be imperilling not your glory but your salvation." This advice we all
should remember if we dwell too much on our mistakes.
Martin died when he was over 80 years old on
November 8. Historians disagree on the year and place it anywhere from 395 to 402. His feast is
November 11, the day he was buried, at his request, in the Cemetery of the Poor.
To read more about other Saints of the day, CLICK HERE